Sic semper tyrannis! I will not celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. Dictators abound in the world; their deaths should be met with a silent shrug. What joy is there in the tragedy of a people still shattered, a country lost in childhood, and another failure in the centuries-old struggle of Cubans for liberty and equality? Let those who will dance on graves wave flags, honk horns and jump in the streets as a rite of passage.
Rather than spit on a corpse, I choose to recall memories of another Old Man—what he did, and what he meant to us.
My father left Cuba for Miami on 1 January 1961 with a suitcase of new clothes, a command of English learned in night school and $5 in his pockets. (Later, whenever he confronted personal or business trials, he would speak this refrain: “This is nothing. I came to this country with $5 in my pockets.”) Family members, friends and acquaintances thought him delusional for leaving Cuba (this was before the breaking of diplomatic relations with the US on 4 January, before Bay of Pigs and Castro’s declaration of a socialist government) and irresponsible for abandoning his wife and children.
In the summer of 1961, my mother, sister and I joined my father in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we stayed until the 1980s. For over a year, our house became a half-way house for Cubans arriving from the island. My parents welcomed a seemingly endless parade of exiles who arrived anxious, penniless, disoriented and determined to reunite with those they had left behind. My father helped them to find jobs; my mother cooked and cleaned for them.
In 1964 my father was Director of Installations for ITT Caribbean Mfg. Co. The first major job assigned to him was the installation of 26 telephone plants in South Vietnam for the US Navy. He was 36 years old, with a wife and family, and had no need to participate in that tragic war. He had three options: accept the job, seek a transfer or find new work. The reason voiced by my family to justify his leaving for Vietnam was that he would earn enough money to send my sister and me to college. But I knew then—as I know now—that there were two other reasons compelling him to go: 1) he wanted to fight against Communists, who had threatened him in Cuba; 2) he wanted to honor his new country, and just like the publican in the Gospel of Luke, enter “his house justified.” (18:14)
In 1971, after visiting Homecoming Weekend during my freshman year at Yale College, my family’s return flight from New York to San Juan was hijacked to Cuba. US citizens and Cuban nationals were distributed to different hotels. Among the passengers, three were selected for special—not extreme—interrogation by Castro’s intelligence police: a US Navy seaman, a CIA officer traveling as a civilian, and my father because he had worked in Vietnam. To the end of his life, the fact that he was grouped with US servicemen as potential threats to the Castro regime was a source of immense pride for him.
In later years my father, my young son and I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. At the entrance to the Wall, there stood a large map of South Vietnam on an easel, before which veterans lined up to point at regions in which they had served in Vietnam. When our turn in line came, my father pointed to two dozen cities he had visited and knew intimately. In front of the Wall, I remember him caressing engraved names on the wall, not in emotional turmoil, but with a gentle smile as if greeting old friends newly met.
Like an American Indian chief, his honor rested not on accumulating riches, but on lifting others from the dire poverty in which he was born. My father made three small fortunes in his life: the first he left behind; the second he used to pay for his children’s education and bring his extended family from Cuba; the third to keep my mother comfortable after he passed away. I keep with me his last possessions as a sacred inheritance: his wrist-watch, his golden tie clip for years of service in ITT, his US passport, and his Vietnam identity card issued by the US Navy.
At 12 years old, my grandfather asked him to leave 6th grade to get a job and help out the family (“I do not blame him,” my father would always say). Because of his lack of formal schooling, he treasured education, sending my sister and me to the best schools, and insisting that we do so with his grandchildren. Before his passing away, at a family reunion after one of his grandchildren had been accepted to Law School, he shared a thought: “If we had stayed in Cuba, we’d be eating mud.”
On my birthday at 18 years old, I became an American citizen. His comment: “You’re born again today.” When he became an American citizen, he changed his middle name from Ricardo to Richard: “Something has to change!” he exclaimed.
He was brilliant, jovial, fearless, an inveterate Republican (“Why?” I once asked him; “Bay of Pigs,” he replied) and a consummate storyteller who always sang as he worked (tangos by Carlos Gardel, Mexican corridos, songs by the Trío Matamoros and Cuban songs learned from the radio and his own father). He was the dearest man in the world to me, until my son arrived.
What follows is from one of his letters written when I was in a bad way in Albuquerque during the early 80s:
My dear son:
You made a very daring decision, to burn all your ships and start all over again. I did the same when I left Cuba, and at first I felt alone and disoriented, leaving you and the family behind, taking into account that you were the main reason for leaving and starting again. Since the day you were born I pledged my word of honor [“me hice el compromiso de honor”] to work and fight to get you the education I never had. That was the main reason for my existence, and in burning my ships and finding myself alone in a strange country I wept helplessly, presuming my failure….
I never lost faith, but sometimes I felt disarmed, for I was limited to walking in only one direction. My experience in telephony was the only weapon I had to fight in a country so large and so different to mine….
I only wish you luck and pray God that you find the right way….
For my part I’ll always keep contributing to your welfare and that of your family. Never hesitate for a second to ask for my help. I, like you, once needed help and there were several people who helped me, even though they were not family…. We (your mother and I) don’t need much to live decently…. I thought of buying a house [here] in St. Thomas … but now I think I won’t do it. My personal ambition was always to live in the United States and for many reasons I had to sacrifice that desire. Now I think I should prepare to live the last years of my life there, even if it is as a retired old man.
Once when I was young, tortured by the pain of exile and the uncertainty of having no country, I recriminated with my mother: “Why did you run? Why didn’t you stay in Cuba and fight?” Holding back tears, she yelled at me the definitive answer, always unspoken by my father: “He did it for you. He did it so you could be free.” On that day I vowed never to visit Cuba while my father was alive, in deference to his life-changing decision, or return to my native country while the Castro regime endured.
Now that the hopes of all Cubans rise once again like the star of Bethlehem, signaling the age-old quest that historian Hugh Thomas called the “pursuit of freedom,” I want to say what I never had the courage to tell my father in life: that he was right to leave Cuba, that I am grateful, and that I honor the living memory of his sacrifice.
So listen well, Donald Trump, listen well! The great nation that harbored my father, the flag for which he fought in Vietnam, will not now forsake political refugees seeking liberty and fleeing oppression, or fathers and mothers crossing the border to take care of families, or hungry children. The children of immigrants—on peril of their soul—will not turn their backs on those who arrive to these shores as our ancestors once did.
And we are not afraid. We are the Scarface people [The Summer of Mariel (Part 2); On Waving Flags], and some of us came with much less that $5 in our pockets. We live by the words of Tony Montana: “You know something? You can send me anywhere. Here, there, this, that … it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing you can do to me that Castro has not already done.”